The persuaders

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2007, 12:00am

The games I play are usually long on tracer fire and short on plot. That is fine because, traditionally, the point of gaming is to have a blast and obliterate reality.

But joystick-pumping self-gratification has its limits. Hence the rise of persuasive gaming, which plays up the moral dimension and injects complexity - in the persuasive sphere it is no longer a case of you against them but you versus, say, your colleagues, some germs, the elements, poverty or whatever. Forget binary thinking rewarded by primitive adrenaline hits. Embrace multiplicity in the persuasive gaming world of grey areas and difficult people.

If you want to experience the subtlety and hassle of the phenomenon for free on Mac or PC, download Disaffected! ( - a videogame spoof of stationery store Kinko's. Mindbendingly irritating, Disaffected! offers three modes - 'bumbling' (easy), 'disaffected' (medium) and 'useless' (hard).

You take on the role of a cashier who must service rednecks, geeks and bohemians while avoiding colleague collisions. 'Get out of the way!' your avatar may shout at some bumbler on your side of the counter. You must keep moving and stay on the ball, otherwise your growing queue of customers will disperse - each storming out under a cloud-like red smiley. To complicate matters, a product required by a client may be a nightmare to find or it may have been moved by a colleague. In this unsettling, dysfunctional climate, you may soon want to gun down your clientele and fellow purple-shirted malcontents before turning the weapon on yourself. The music that seems to emanate from some kind of electronic tuba sharpens the stress.

But since you have become enmeshed in the game, you must muddle through, interacting and adapting, which sounds good for the brain. Disaffected! may nonetheless drive you crazy.

When your disaffection grows severe, you can always switch sides to the political persuasive game that grabs much of the media attention - Darfur Is Dying ( DID lands you either inside a refugee shelter or outside, foraging in the desert.

Your mission is to do something helpful - get water before a Janjaweed militiaman blows you away, for example. On your journey, you can run like crazy and hide by pressing the spacebar. But you will struggle to escape your oppressors, who are marauding the desert in a weapons-laden truck.

When the Janjaweed catch up with your avatar, it doesn't simply get splattered a la Quake - there is no pixellated gore. Instead, your avatar freezes and a civilised red message says: 'You have been captured by the militia.'

Below, another message gives some context to your demise, which relates to the sex and age of your avatar. One reads: 'Girls in Darfur face abuse, rape and kidnapping by the Janjaweed. If she succeeds, the girl can bring more water back than a smaller boy but less than an adult.' Intriguing.

Other brain-tickling persuasive games teach you how to operate for an army, outsmart a bully, solve a crime and harvest heaps of cheap produce then sell it for as much profit as possible before floods of animal waste infect it with E coli. Yet another teaches you how to make money at McDonald's by exploiting poor countries and feeding cattle growth hormones.

The depth and edginess of persuasive games make them more engrossing than their standard tap-and-zap rivals. Games that test tact and cunning rather than merely reflexes and ruthlessness will surely gain traction. Prepare to put on your pixellated purple shirt.